Dr. Arnold Cook




Dr. Arnold L. Cook

The "theology of missions," the "mission of the Church" has been a frequently visited theme over the 50 years of my commitment to the "missionary task." This issue has often been at the "eye of the storm" of theological debate in every generation.  Again I sense yet another critical aspect of this question emerging as we move into the 21st century.  Almost every evangelical magazine I pick up, all the way from up from the broad strokes of "Christianity Today" to the very "hands on" Evangelical Missionary Quarterly" (EMQ) underlines the need for a "holistic" approach.  I was given a book recently by a pastor titled: "Let the Earth Rejoice!" The author William A Dyrness traces God's mission from the Genesis creation through to the new creation. His subtitle identifies his thesis: "A Biblical Theology of Holistic Mission."

I need to confess my bias up front: "I studied, served and taught missions during the rise and fall of the "Church Growth Movement," (CGM) (1955 --2000).  An indelible memory is recalling the founder and dean of the CGM, Donald McGavran, graciously, yet pointedly critiquing the World Council of Churches, in the 1970s for their omission of a clear statement on the priority of the Great Commission as the heart of their theology of missions.  I was on the ground in Colombia South America in the "1960s" observing first hand the wholesale acceptance of the Roman Catholic clergy and the masses in Latin American of the new and popular version of "Liberation Theology," championed by Gustavo Gutierrez et al.

Let me speak briefly to the long history of practicing holistic missions in my own denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada and the U.S. (prior to 1980).  For many the C&MA may be a small and little known denomination.  For others we may still have the fame of professing to be one of the few "missionary denominations." In house at least a minority still admonish ourselves, in a day of wide spread "historical drift away from core values," that our middle name is missionary.  When I hear that well intentioned comment from my esteemed colleagues, I think: "When was the last time someone asked me for my middle name?  "Middle names are rarely used for persons today and easily forgotten in organizations.

Here are my concerns regarding the current emphasis on "holistic missions."

1.      It implies that the concept is new to "Alliance Missions."

This is understandable today when "history" has fallen into the forgotten file.  The vocal pragmatists among us tell us straight out:  "Don't talk to us about 'reading history' --we're all about "making history!"  But there are still those responsible students who take time to read our century plus years of missionary history e.g. It is found in books like:   "Beside all Waters," "To All Peoples" and "All for Jesus" recalling how Alliance churches were planted in over 60 countries of the world and today have personnel scattered throughout some 80 nations.  

"Early Alliance" missions" from the beginning was committed to "ministering to the whole person.  Some of our large hospitals in Africa are over a century old.   In addition every rural missionary was expected to operate a "back door clinic" from their homes.  African nurses were trained, from the beginning, for the hospitals.  A new hospital has just been built in Mali, West Africa.

In one of our oldest fields, India, the church was begun initially through the ministry to orphans. Orphanages were built, not only in India but in other countries including some Latin American countries.  In South East Asia in Thailand the Alliance ministry to the lepers played a key role in opening the work in that country.  In the later stages of the 20th century, following the fall of South Viet Nam in 1975, extensive ministries were established in the refugee camps in Thailand, ministering to refugees from Cambodia, Viet Nam and Laos. In addition to the evangelistic ministry of the Gospel, nurses ministered to their physical needs. Other workers assisted the refugees how to develop their national crafts which the Mission marketed to the outside world. This aspect of "holistic" ministry became the development arm of CAMA Services (Christian and Missionary Alliance Services) joining the other arm of "relief." These ministries were not only effective in South East Asia in the late 70s into the 90s, but this portable model of holistic ministry moved around the Alliance World wherever national refugee crises occurred.   

On a broader scale it's impressive to note the high numbers of pioneer missionaries in the last two centuries who were trained medical doctors.  Dr. Hudson Taylor would become the best known. 

2.      It tends to dichotomize our missionary mandate: 

Following His resurrection "Christ appeared to them (apostles) over a period of 40 days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). This was a very critical period of His ministry: "only 40 days to prepare His followers to build His universal Church." We can discover what Christ believed should be the top priority issues in the building of His Church. A cursory study of the final chapters of the Gospels and the first chapter of Acts covering those final 40 days is most instructive.

One activity quickly emerges as a high priority: "the Great Commission."  There are "five references to what we know as the Great Commission." Each Gospel ends with a version of it.  Then there is Christ's summary statement just before His ascension: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8).  This did not negate a holistic ministry to people with social and physical needs, but did establish His priority.  This was to be His church's priority --preaching, teaching, baptizing and making of disciples of "all peoples" (Matt. 28:16-20).   

His ministry of healing certainly highlighted His three years of earthly ministry. But on various occasions He deliberately paused to explain the priority of "the spiritual" over "the physical." He referenced this when He spoke of the "offending members of the body:" "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell"(Matt. 5:30). Others could be cited where He pits eternal life against this world. "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).  He always saw the physical as temporary, but the spiritual condition as eternal which determined the everlasting destiny of people. His healings and miracles always had specific purposes, often related to the spiritual state, beyond the obvious relief from human pain. He understood well "that empty bellies have no ears" long before relief agencies coined the phrase.

3.      Twin priorities of "social action and evangelism" are doomed to fail:

Scores of "well-meaning organizations" are launched with the lofty ideal of "evangelizing and providing social services" as twin priorities. This is common practise in institutional missionary projects, i.e. schools and hospitals etc. It looks great on paper in the board room, but quickly becomes untenable in practise.  Over time, given the pressures of time, energy and resources, the "tangible social concerns become the number one priority and the spiritual task of evangelism falls to a distant second. I have observed this tragic scenario over time as it relates to Christian hospitals and schools.  The Presbyterian school which started well has become one more secular institution with a religious name. The Methodist hospital is just another medical center operated on secular principles addressing primarily the temporal physical needs. This is the destiny of Christian organizations who champion "twin priorities."

A German mission working in a huge slum area of Lima, Peru was one of these idealistic agencies.  They wanted to build a high quality school for the poor.  They added an additional grade every year. In 12 years they were offering a full school program 1-12.   But their other goal of equal importance was to evangelize the parents as they educated their children.  They build an attractive chapel as part of the school complex. They hired a well trained Peruvian pastor. They took him to Europe paid him well. After 12 years, to their credit, they evaluated their process against their twin goals.  The school had expanded as planned.  But the chapel only had a handful of believers. 

They took action. They discovered they could not maintain dual goals --the more tangible one "education" always took priority over the less tangible spiritual goal of "evangelism." They turned the chapel and the task evangelization over to our Alliance mission.  Today there is a very large dynamic church reaching out in evangelism and discipling the parents of the children studying next door in a very excellent Christian school.

4.      It ignores the power of "redemptive lift" 

The father of the Church Growth Movement, Donald  McGavran was frequently asked: "How do we reach the "emerging middle class" in Latin America?"  His answer always surprised and disappointed us: "You reach the lower class." Not the answer we wanted.  What did he mean?  Inherent in the Gospel is the power to lift pagan people to another level socially in one brief generation.  I saw this happen in Colombia.  In the 1960s it was rare to find a person in our churches who had completed high school. By the 70s many high school grads and even university trained people were in our evangelical churches.

I would argue this issue with Colombian university students. "Don Arnoldo" they would argue, "our country doesn't need more religious people like you working in the city proselytizing Roman Catholics. You should be doing medical work out in the villages helping our poor people physically and socially." My retort: "Let me tell you about my friend Jose. He had a large family but none of his children were in school. He had no money to buy shoes for school. He left half his pay check in the corner bar on booze. He also supported a mistress.  Then Jose hears the Gospel.  He repents and believes. He becomes a real born again Christian. Now he brings his pay cheque home. He's dropped the second woman. Now his kids are in school. He's now has money for shoes.  This social unit of Jose's family has experienced "redemptive lift." Multiple that by a dozen families and we have started a mini "social revolution."  Those students knew exactly what I was talking about.  The social pattern of Jose's life was well known to them.

Veteran missionaries working with the tribal people of Viet Nam testify to similar examples. These tribal people lived in long houses. Contagious diseases would spread rapidly through multiple families connected in these long houses.  As people became Christians they began changing their house construction, building separate dwellings for each family. Then they discovered they were healthier. Those early missionaries only had the "Gospel" to offer. No social programs, limited medical counsel. But their converts became the recipients of "redemptive lift."

5.      Could an unbalanced emphasis on "holistic ministry" become a subtle forerunner of another "social gospel?" 

"The social Gospel" was a sociological development in the late19th century.  Certain denominational organizations focused solely on social issues.  I am more concerned about another phenomenon which occurs when denominations and evangelical relief and development agencies become wholly focused on social action.  Although slow to confess to any subtle shift, social concerns seemed have replaced, perhaps unconsciously, the Gospel in their activities, core values and even in their theology.

Thank God for the Salvation Army. They have been battling this tendency for decades as they have attempted be become a mainline evangelical denomination.  Large historic denominations have drifted into nominalism and lost their theology of the new birth.  All that's left for outreach is social action. Some take considerable satisfaction in the fact "they no longer send personnel overseas but just finances to assist third world countries.

But we hasten to add, "this would never happen to the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada or the United States."  Time will tell. In one of our national churches in Asia, "19 persons walked out of one of our churches because social action was not elevated to coequal status" with evangelism" (L. L. King in a paper titled "The C&MA, as I see it, beyond 1987" p. 5).  He warns that this concept, "that evangelism and social responsibility are insolubly wedded together and cannot be separated," will lead us to repeat the cycle of 80 years ago (as is the period of the "social gospel"). Unfortunately it is happening quietly in other members of the Alliance family where nominalism is creeping in and producing a generation of people who are "Christians in name only."

Conclusion:  I applaud the current strategic of shifting our overseas personnel into countries with little or no Christian witness. Globalization has made it possible for direct short term workers finding employment and establishing businesses in these countries. It has also facilitated growing numbers of our career personnel moving into "closed countries" now called "creative access countries." They are finding employment and securing visas. The recent development in Afghanistan, where a group of Korean missionaries were captured, reminds us of the very real danger in many of these countries for our international workers. A Swedish worker, who had pastored his rapidly growing registered church, in one of these countries, had procrastinated in turning over leadership to national personnel. Returning from a recent vacation in Sweden, they were met by the police in the airport and had all their visas revoked and all sent back to Sweden.  The indigenous policy of turning over leadership to nationals received help from an unexpected source. Our international workers develop many friendships but the challenge is to see these friends become true disciples of Christ.  They must constantly guard their minds from a false sense that somehow just helping people improve their quality of life, through acquiring English, or some other skill is akin to Christian conversion.  Or they can fall into the syndrome of the "seed- sowing mentality." Never expecting a harvest.

In conclusion just a word about the forgotten theological concept of "prevenient grace." Many of us should recall this term from our course in systematic theology in College. It's not seen in Reformed Theology but more common among the Arminians such as the Wesleys.  It's a concept coming from the first chapter of John and other passages. "That true light which gives light to everyone who comes into the world" (John 1:9 NKJ). This is not the divine spark in every man heresy.  But the concept that every person is born with a disposition toward receiving God's truth despite man's total depravity. (See Don Richardson's thesis in his books, i.e. God has made "man for the Gospel and the Gospel is made for every man.") 

A missionary colleague who is working in a creative access country raised this question with me:  "Could it be that what we are doing to earn a hearing for the Gospel, by building friendships, learning their culture etc., actually working with "prevenient grace."  He mentioned how a man he has befriended, has been noticeably blessed materially over this period of friendship.  Could it be that our approach in these resistant cultures is in God's sovereignty working with "prevenient grace" to bring these people to faith in Christ?  A thought worthy of further study.